It’s been over 40 years since American choppers lifted off above the U.S. embassy in Saigon, bodies desperately holding onto every available surface, signifying the end of the Vietnam War. The war was a strange and horrible one, perhaps the strangest and most horrible war in America’s long history of violence.
To begin with, it remains to this day the only war that the U.S.A. has ever fought and lost. Now, it’s not like the U.S. saw its forces outgunned and destroyed in detail on the battlefields of the war- not very often, anyway. Rather, a seriously flawed foreign policy (anyone remember the “Domino Theory” of Communism? How’d that work out?), an erratic commitment to how to wage the war in the field by both Presidents and generals, and a homefront full of protest (this is the war that gave rise to the social radicalism of the 60s, after all), all contributed to a less than stellar American outcome.
For a long time, the Vietnam War was treated as America’s national shame. Returning soldiers were spit upon and vilified by American civilians, sometimes with reason but often for no good reason other than people disagreed with the war itself. As the war clearly inched toward a disastrous ending, the U.S. military found itself the whipping boy of the country, a position it was decidedly not familiar with. And veterans of the war itself often found themselves suffering from a host of physical and emotional trauma; the war “in the trenches” was a very different war than those of the past and PTSD ran rampant among veterans.
It’s no wonder then, that the images to come out of the war are mighty in their ability to elicit horror. There are whole hosts of awful photos that show the tremendously terrible price participants in the war, on all sides (and there were many sides) paid. Here are 15 that will haunt you forever.
15. Attack On U.S. Embassy
One region that, of course, felt the brunt of the Tet Offensive in 1968, was the capital city of South Vietnam, Saigon. The Communist forces chose to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year (called Tet) by launching all out surprise attacks all over the country. One of the places they attacked in Saigon was the U.S. Embassy.
As you can see from the shocking image above, this attack was not successful. The prisoner is in fact, a Viet Cong guerrilla who has been captured by U.S. military police (see the “MP” on their helmets and armbands?) after failing to blow up the embassy. Or murder the ambassador or whatever he was going to do. In yet another reminder that war makes animals of us all, it’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for how roughed up the guy looks, even if he was on the “other side.” I can’t imagine he had a very good day after this.
14. Wounded U.S. Soldiers
As should already be apparent by now, the Tet Offensive was a huge turning point in the war. It not only expanded the scale of the war (and the scale of war-related atrocities), it also began the long slow slide of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. America did not lose the war, militarily, but it sure didn’t win it either.
Here we see the aftereffects of battle, most horribly, on normal, average U.S. soldiers. These wounded are being evacuated from Hue, a city in central South Vietnam that was (like just about everything else) a target of the NVA and Viet Cong offensive. Seeing the fear on the faces of the crouching medics as they evacuate under fire, not to mention the terrifying bandaging, drip bags, and blood, drives home all too closely how awful war can be at its most basic level.
13. My Lai Massacre
In 1968, U.S. soldiers were unfortunately involved in one of the worst massacres of the war and the most infamous one in U.S. military history. The notorious incident took place on March 15 of that year and helped to polarize anti-war sentiment at home. It also resulted in the revelations that the military had tried to cover up the whole incident.
A company of U.S. army soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley, searched the village of My Lai for suspected Viet Cong guerilla soldiers and sympathizers. My Lai was supposedly a stronghold for the Viet Cong, who were the “guerrilla” arm of the communists fighting the South Vietnamese government and its U.S. allies. They were spread across the entire population.
Although they didn’t find any armed men or “spies,” Calley’s men killed all of the elderly, women and children they could find. The death toll was nearly 500 souls. Calley was ultimately convicted of murder but was later acquitted when the extent of the cover up by army brass was revealed. No other soldier was convicted of any wrongdoing by the U.S. army or any American court.
12. Khe Sanh: “War Is All Hell”
If you want to begin a major operation against the enemy, it’s always nice to surprise him with a little bit of misdirection. Anyway, that’s what the Communist North Vietnamese Army decided to do when they besieged the U.S. marine base at Khe Sanh in the northwest corner of the country, and then launched the famous (and huge) Tet Offensive everywhere else in January 1968.
Khe Sanh was a fairly isolated place but the marines and their South Vietnamese allies managed to hang on for 77 days and ultimately fight off their attackers. While that was certainly a long time for an isolated outpost, it must have seemed infinitely longer to the soldiers trapped there. This image certainly shows the horrors of war up close- not just for civilians and innocent bystanders, but also for the ordinary “grunts” who had to live through bombings, snipers and desperate charges by the enemy. That doesn’t sound even remotely fun.
11. “The Horror, The Horror”
That’s what Marlon Brando’s character, Colonel Kurtz, exclaims in the masterful Vietnam War-based movie Apocalypse Now. Looking at this haunting picture of troops in the field certainly drives that horror home doesn’t it? This photo was taken of U.S. soldiers bivouacking far outside their home bases. It was taken in October 1968. 1968 was not a good year for America-not only was the war in Vietnam raging but anti-war protests and Civil Rights protests were raging on the homefront. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that year.
This young soldier’s face seems to reflect all of the horror of a society at odds with itself, both at home and abroad. The squalid living conditions are appalling as well and to top it all off, the soldiers’ grim sense of humor has left a grinning reminder of the end they all fear awaits them.
10. A Mother’s Grief
War knows no boundaries and it knows no end. Anyone who thinks that the innocent are spared in time of war is deluding themselves. In fact, it’s often civilians; farmers, villagers, city-dwellers, children, who suffer the most at the grinding hands of the cruel machinery of war.
Here a mother mourns over the body of her child outside of Hue (remember that fun city?) in 1969. The year has changed but the horror lives on. The body was found in a mass grave with many other bodies. That’s her hat covering up the little body. I think the anguish and unspeakable pain upon her face would be reason enough for none of us to ever go to war again but then, what do I know?
9. More Nightmares From Tet
Young men, from whatever side they are on, go off to war full of ideals. Perhaps they even go off to war dreaming dreams of glory and honor. That’s what war is all about, right? Well…no. What war is really about is the failure of nations to achieve a satisfactory political solution to their problems. Very, very rarely it might be about a “crusade for the greater good” like World War Two is sometimes thought to be. But mostly it’s about young men playing soldiers and dying for generals and politicians. And women now too, lest we forget.
Lest we forget as well that the other side always has a human face too; here are dead Viet Cong soldiers grouped in clumps of mortality. They were killed “outside the wire” (meaning the perimeter) of the Da Nang base during, you guessed it, the Tet offensive. There’s not much glory in this image. Not much at all.
8. A Woman’s War
Since the Viet Cong had such strong support from the populace, particularly the rural populace (which made up the bulk of South Vietnam’s population), it should come as no surprise that women were heavily involved on the front lines. Anytime a so-called terror organization (they call themselves “freedom fighters”) is deeply embedded in the people and also popular, you will find that it’s not just young men who fight (or resist).
Here a suspected Viet Cong informant is interrogated by a South Vietnamese officer. And yes, that’s an American soldier holding the gun to her head. As I’ve already mentioned, war doesn’t care who you are- if you’re in a war zone, you’re on one side or the other whether you want to be or not. I can’t imagine what the two soldiers thought as they interrogated this woman who looks like somebody’s grandmother. Probably they were just happy to still be alive themselves, out in the field.
7. Salvation In The Field
One of the daunting aspects of the war to U.S. troops was the difficult fact that, in order to fight Viet Cong guerrillas, they had to patrol an unfamiliar jungle, always on the lookout for danger and almost always desperately uncomfortable as well. It was not an “easy” conventional war of large formations of men moving across an open landscape with plenty of support and logistics right behind them. No, it was a dirty, “little” war of small-group combat out at the tip of the spear.
Here a sergeant of the 101st Airborne, one of America’s most famous army divisions, attempts to signal to a chopper for medevac. You can see the wounded soldier in the foreground grimacing in pain after their patrol has been ambushed and other soldiers, both wounded and healthy, looking up into the sky, hope and fear fighting for supremacy on their faces. The signaling sergeant is somewhat reminiscent of Willem Dafoe’s “good” lieutenant in Oliver Stone’s classic Vietnam War movie Platoon. Somehow I doubt that Stone was not aware of this powerful image.
6. Buddhist Monk’s Protest
Not many people are willing to give their lives protesting for something they believe in. They might fight for a cause, but to willingly lay down your life for it is a very rare occurrence indeed. That, however, is precisely what Buddhist monk Quang Duc did in 1963. Duc was protesting the South Vietnamese president’s policy of religious intolerance. The president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Catholic who apparently had no use for Buddhism, the major religion in South Vietnam, or any other belief. He refused to stop the oppression even under pressure from his ally the U.S. Duc set himself on fire (called self-immolation) in the middle of a busy street in Saigon. Other monks would soon follow suit as the president refused to bend. In fact, Diem’s own sister called the immolations “barbecues” and offered to buy matches for the burnings. That’s the kind of people Duc was protesting. Diem himself was assassinated later that year. What a shocker.
5. Kent State Tragedy
It could never happen in America, right? The president would never call out the National Guard to quell protestors on college campuses, would he? The Guardsmen could never, ever open fire on protestors, their peers and fellow citizens, could they? Well, yes, yes they could. Here’s an image that should fully illustrate just how divisive the war was for America.
After a few days of unrest on campus (protestors held protests, guardsmen broke them up), protestors at Kent State University, both students of the school and supporters, were utterly shocked to find National Guardsmen opening fire on them on Monday, May 4, 1970. It was the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the height of the anti-war movement at home. The governor of Ohio had called out the Guard to deal with what he termed “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” Yeah, it was that bad. Around noon the Guard broke up a rally on campus and then, supposedly fearing for their lives, twenty-nine of the soldiers fired 67 shots in 13 seconds. When the smoke cleared, four young Americans were dead.
4. Children Napalmed
I doubt anybody can possibly imagine what it’s like to be attacked by planes carrying napalm unless they have actually lived through it. Which is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Napalm is one of the more evil weapons of war, a mixture of jellied gasoline that is incredibly flammable, extremely hard to put out, and just for bonus points, sticks to human skin.
This photo shows the aftermath of an allied (U.S.and South Vietnamese forces) air strike on a village held by the North Vietnamese Army. Unfortunately, one pilot mistook fleeing villagers for fighters. The girl in the picture, Kim Phuc, was horribly burned along her back. It may be an iconic photo but it still gives one the chills to think that a nine-year-old child would have to suffer from the hounds of war. Oh yeah, two of her cousins were killed outright by the bomb. So she must have been the lucky one…
3. Cop Shoots Guerilla
As we mentioned earlier, the Vietcong were the revolutionary arm of the South Vietnamese populace, the ones who wanted to unite with North Vietnam in a unified, Communist-led country. To the South Vietnamese government and to its allies like the U.S. they were a terrible terror, winning the hearts and minds of average people and actively fighting against the regime in power. To many people in South Vietnam, they were liberators and heroes.
One thing that happens in war is executions. And those executions aren’t always done after a trial. Or very cleanly. In this very famous photo from the war, Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lam, is shot in the head, on a busy street corner in Saigon, on February 1, 1968. The shooter is General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the head of the national police force. In a revealing sign of just how deeply divisive this war was, Loan told reporters immediately after the execution, “These guys kill a lot of our people and I think Buddha will forgive me.” Forget remorse in this war- it’s not home.
2. The Fall Of Saigon, Part One
Can you imagine being a member of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, a civil, governmental building and compound and seeing this coming at and over your walls? Can you imagine having your family there with you and desperately wondering if any of you are going to make it out? This is the scene that faced U.S. government employees, their families, soldiers, contract workers and reporters. What makes this photo particularly haunting, though, is that this is not people attacking the embassy. These are South Vietnamese civilians (and operatives) desperately fleeing their fate if they remain outside the Embassy walls.
Their world is collapsing in on them as the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong enter Saigon in triumph, victors in a long and terrible war. Taken on April 29, 1975, just a day before the final Fall of Saigon, this powerful image shows the desperation of the losing side, who know full well they will be executed if they stay in their homeland.
1. The Fall Of Saigon, Part Two
The war was over. The U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies had lost. Which meant that the Communists were going to exact revenge upon anyone who had supported the old regime. Anyone. In this final haunting photo, evacuees crowd a building about a half mile from the embassy on April 29, 1975. You can see that there is one, lone American chopper on the roof of the building and hundreds of people fighting for a seat on it. It’s just a sea of humanity trying to squeeze itself into salvation. A CIA officer stands on the roof trying to help.
This scene was repeated all over Saigon in the days leading up to the fall of the city. South Vietnamese pilots took their helicopters and flew off to pick up their families, then flew out into the Gulf of Tonkin looking for a ship, any ship, to rescue them. Tens of thousands of “Boat People” fled on tiny boats, just hoping to survive. And thousands more roamed the streets of the city looking for any way out. War is great, isn’t it?